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Column 537Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Skeet, Sir Trevor
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Spencer, Sir Derek
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Spink, Dr Robert
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Column 537Thurnham, Peter
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. David Lightbown.
Column 537Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House condemns the Opposition's wish to continue the inadequate existing system of Income Support Mortgage Interest, which does not protect those with modest savings, those with small pensions or redundancy payments, or those with a working spouse, which has undermined the spread of private mortgage insurance and has contributed to 50,000 homes a year being repossessed; believes that the Government's proposals will lead to the development of more comprehensive, less costly insurance cover; welcomes the fact that pensioners on income support will continue to have their mortgage interest paid; and reaffirms its commitment to home ownership.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[ Mr. Burns. ]
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins) rose - - [Interruption.]
Mr. Atkins: When we think of England, we think often of the countryside. Our countryside has seen great changes over the past 50 years and it will face new challenges as we enter the next century. We must face those challenges with optimism and a clear sense of direction.
That is why the Government have decided to produce a White Paper on the future of the English countryside. The English countryside is at a crossroads. Traditional industries are declining. There are demands for new jobs, new homes and more leisure opportunities. We must ensure that our countryside provides a good quality of life for people today and that it is ready to meet the challenges of the future, but we must take care that we do not destroy the qualities which make our countryside so valuable.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Does my hon. Friend accept that the assurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 8 December--that the Education Department will be closely involved with the steering group--will be extremely important to people like me, and my hon. Friend, who believe in rural schools? Does he condemn the efforts made by Lancashire county council to attack and destroy village schools?
Mr. Atkins: As a constituent of my hon. Friend, as well as a parliamentary neighbour, I am only too well aware of the pressure on village schools in Lancashire and elsewhere. My hon. Friend is a renowned and doughty fighter for the village schools in her constituency, and she makes an important point to which I shall return later. It is an entirely fair point, and we shall be considering it. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who will be winding up the debate, will be more than happy to support my hon. Friend's concerns.
The aim of the White Paper is to set out our vision for the medium to long- term future of our countryside. It will not be about quick fixes. Instead, it will look 15 to 20 years ahead to the sort of countryside that we want our children to enjoy. It will examine the pressures on the countryside and review the Government's responses to those pressures. It will set a framework for future policies. Most importantly, the White Paper will help ensure that all policies which affect the countryside are part of an overall strategy. Our policies need to support each other and not pull in different directions. The White Paper is being co-ordinated jointly by my Department and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The presence of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary demonstrates that. It involves, and must continue to involve, many other Departments right across Government.
Column 539south-west, but in most rural areas--which is the spread of the concrete jungle? As an illustration, I fought my constituency in 1967, when it had an electorate of 63,000. If I had the same parishes in my constituency today, the electorate would be 118,000. That is the kind of growth we are having in the south-west, and the concrete jungle is eating into the countryside. When planning applications come to the Department, they seem to be approved without enough thought being given to the protection of rural England, which is what we all wish to see.
Mr. Atkins rose --
Mr. Atkins: My right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) is a distinguished and long-serving Member, and he speaks with considerable authority about rural matters, which he has represented in constituency terms in this place for many years. I was in my right hon. Friend's constituency during the summer, and I saw for myself the sort of pressures about which he talks. I shall be addressing some of my later remarks to planning, but he has put his finger on the concerns. The pressure from those who have moved from the town, or from those who are visiting the countryside from the town, is matter which my right hon. Friend and other hon. Friends have raised.
Mr. Atkins: I have enough trouble looking after the problems in England without being concerned personally with Scotland and Wales. The Ministers responsible for rural matters in those two parts of the United Kingdom are only too well aware of the concerns which my hon. Friend wishes to raise. My task is to be responsible for the English countryside, and I shall certainly make sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends are aware of my hon. Friend's concern.
It is important to realise that my hon. Friend, as an English Member, has been able to raise his particular concerns about Scotland and Wales. Perhaps--under the proposals from the Opposition--that might not be the case in future, and that is an important point. My hon. Friend will know that forestry throughout the UK is led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and that adds more fuel to the point that I just made.
Where were we? [Laughter.] There is a penalty in giving way to so many hon. Friends.
People in the countryside tend not to shout as loud as well-organised and influential urban lobby groups. In a world dominated by towns and cities, it is all too easy to overlook the needs of rural areas. Country folk think that no one is listening and that their interests have been forgotten or neglected, but that has changed since I was appointed Minister for the Environment and Countryside. I have made it my top priority to get out into the countryside--from Northumberland to the Isles of Scilly, from Shropshire to Kent--to discover the real needs of rural England.
Column 540One thing that I have learnt is that there is no single voice for the English countryside. Some people want more development, others want less. To some people, the countryside is a place to enjoy, to others it is the place where they live and work, and it is the latter to whom I am paying particular attention.
Many people have a stake in the future of our countryside. That is why we have asked more than 300 organisations to tell us what they think should be in the White Paper. We have also publicised it through national, regional and specialist press and invited people to write to us directly with their views. At the last count, we had received about 200 responses from organisations and individuals alike and we know that many more are on the way.
In addition, we are arranging a series of regional seminars during the next few months, which will provide a further opportunity for Ministers from my Department and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to listen to people who know and understand the countryside.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I are delighted to have this opportunity to hear the views of hon. Members. Many Members, on both sides of the political divide, represent rural constituencies and I look forward to an informed and constructive debate. It is particularly helpful to have this debate during the early stages of our work on the White Paper. I cannot promise that we shall be able to deliver everything that people ask for, but my hon. Friend and I will take away the promising ideas that I am sure will
arise--especially from the Benches behind me--to explore with our ministerial colleagues in other Departments.
The Environment Bill is being discussed in another place and contains provisions to safeguard our national parks and protect hedgerows. We appreciate the heritage provided by our national parks. They are frequently termed, with justification, as the jewels in the crown of our landscape. When they were established 45 years ago, however, few people can have imagined the pressures that they face today. The Bill therefore provides for the establishment of independent national park authorities, which will provide the framework within which a more integrated approach can be taken to the management of those areas. For the first time, it will also oblige Government Departments and other public bodies to have regard to the purposes of the parks when operating within them.
The national parks can thrive only by maintaining a sensible balance between the purposes of conservation and recreation, for which they have been designated, and the needs of local communities. That is why we also propose a duty requiring the new national park authorities to have regard to the economic and social well-being of the local communities.
We are also honouring our commitment to protect hedgerows. They can be an important part of the fabric of the countryside as a wildlife habitat, a valuable landscape feature or simply a reflection of our history. The Environment Bill includes powers enabling us to introduce a statutory scheme to protect important hedgerows in England and Wales. We intend to introduce a scheme that is reasonable, practical and fair--a scheme that minimises the burden on those who will be subject to the controls and those who will administer them. The
Column 541detailed arrangements will be settled only after we have listened carefully to views expressed as the Bill progresses through Parliament and during separate public consultation.
The Government are committed to the protection of our hedgerows and to the future of our national parks. Traditionally, our policies to protect the countryside have worked through designating particular areas. The White Paper provides an opportunity to consider how far we want to move further in that direction and whether we want to consider new approaches that will help to safeguard the assets in the wider countryside.
Environmentally sensitive areas and countryside stewardship point the way towards a new approach, providing incentives for farmers and land managers, who are the stewards of the English countryside and who, over the centuries, have helped to create the countryside as we now know it--a fact often forgotten or ignored by urban dwellers. The White Paper will assess the roles of regulation, advice and incentives and map out a strategy to make the most effective use of our resources.
In addition to special programmes to protect the countryside, we must ensure that the major forms of land use are conducted, as far as possible, in a way that enhances the environment. That is particularly true of agriculture, as about 73 per cent. of the land surface of England is farmed. We may need to study the prospects for new crops and positive alternatives, such as forestry, which can offer a range of benefits.
The White Paper will consider the future priorities for land use in the countryside. In doing so, it will need to take into account the likely future course of the common agricultural policy. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has established a policy group of independent experts to advise him on future developments and the United Kingdom priorities for change. The results of that review will feed into the White Paper.
The planning system is one of the main ways in which we protect our countryside, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton said in his intervention. I hear many different views of its effectiveness, as do many of my hon. Friends. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, for example, tells me that the planning system needs to be strengthened, but the Country Landowners Association tells me that it should be more permissive. We shall be dealing with that problem in the rural White Paper.
More development is necessary in rural areas if it is to provide new homes and new jobs, but that development must be in the right place and be of good quality, if it is to fit in to the English country landscape. That means design that responds to local styles and materials and I have some plans for that.
People in the countryside--perhaps not so differently to those in other parts of the country--are sometimes accused of NIMBYism. Often, it is not the principle of new buildings to which they object, but the imposition of ugly developments that look totally inappropriate. We are lucky to have inherited a country with a myriad of local